Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Panic in the Conservative hierarchy

Shortly after the coalition agreement was arrived at in 2010, I predicted that the Conservatives would win the next general election with an overall majority, Labour making practically no gains and Liberal Democrats being the main sufferers. I did this without joy, based purely on my reading of political history. I also predicted that Liberal Democrats in government would keep their side of the coalition bargain, but that the Conservatives, as the economy improved, would be emboldened to break the agreement. This would lead to a change of government at least, but possibly also an early dissolution of parliament if Labour were deceived into thinking that they would do well at the ballot box.

Today, I am not so sure. Certainly, the Labour party, by failing, in a time of financial hardship, to regain in the English county election results the wards it lost in 2009 has shown that it will not be capable of mounting a national challenge when the economy is on the up. On the other hand, I assumed that the Conservative party would turn more Thatcherite, but remain monolithic. Now the possibility of their MPs splitting three ways has suddenly arisen after the media-fuelled rise of UKIP. The likelihood of a split* is still remote. However, David Cameron's flip-flop over an EU referendum is not only a panic acknowledgement of its possibility but also a sign of weakness in the face of his little-England critics who have immediately asked for more.

My own view is that an "in-out" referendum should have been in the coalition agreement and held as soon as possible after the government took office. Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos implied that the UK electorate would have been allowed to express their view on EU membership, though the weasel words "major change" were in the small print. Such a referendum would have replaced the pointless and more damaging one on Alternative Vote. I am also confident that there would have been  shown to be only a minority voting for change.

The danger for the next government, whether Conservative or coalition, is that an EU referendum will be used by Labour as a vote against the government as a whole, not on the merits of EU membership - just as they did with AV, which, it should be remembered, was a Labour idea.

* I envisaged some of the more extreme Tories forming a UKIP parliamentary party (see the closing paragraphs of this Nadine Dorries piece from a year ago), the core Conservative party becoming more reactionary and in response the more liberal and socially aware Conservatives switching to the Liberal Democrats or possibly even Labour.

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